Wednesday, April 14, 2010

When Google Wasn't Just A Search Engine...It Meant Barney!

Born April 15, 1890, tomorrow would be the 120th birthday of comic strip artist Bill DeBeck.

Billy DeBeck created one of the biggest pop-culture phenoms of the 1920's and 30's, Barney Google. That's him below with the Goo-Goo-Googly eyes.

The character of Barney Google was kind of a shifty, get-rich-quick schemer with a race horse addiction. I've spent my life hearing of how great this strip was, and the examples of DeBeck's work are a real joy to see. Unfortunately, this is a strip I have little first hand experience reading.

Here are a few examples I glommed from the web this morning. They're great, but I'd love to read a solid story sequence.

You'll note that in addition to Barney Google and his race horse side-kick Spark Plug, DeBeck also created the very popular Bunky banner strip. And never one to rest on his laurels, at a certain point Barney Google went to the rural south to visit a distant cousin, Snuffy Smith. The rural comedy struck a chord with readers, and eventually DeBeck abandoned Barney altogether and featured Snuffy and his clan pretty much exclusively.

In 1942, DeBeck passed away and the strip was taken over by his assistant Fred Lasswell, and by the time I became aware of the strip first hand (late 1960's) the strip was called (in tiny letters above the title) Barney Google and (then in bold block letters) Snuffy Smith (by lined) by Fred Lasswell.

It was confusing for me to hear of Billy DeBeck and Barney Google and Spark Plug from my elders, when there was no evidence of any of them in my Sunday paper.

This differed from my exposure to say, E.C. Segar's Popeye. Bud Sagendorf's Popeye wasn't in my paper to muddle my understanding, and though the Famous Studios TV cartoons of Popeye were on my TV, I had big brothers who made me turn the channel to where the Fleischer Brothers Popeye's were doing it right.

One day I'll get a collection of DeBeck's work, and find his character play as much a joy as I find his line work. I'm sure of it.

Not convinced that this stubby little gent was a giant amongst giants?

Proof is, reprints of his comic strip were among the first reprinted in book form after the turn of the century masters. And featured in comic books, even a little after Snuffy Smith had forced him out of his strip.

More proof? Charles Schulz's nickname "Sparky" came because an uncle named him that after Barney Google's horse Spark Plug. A strip has GOT to be big when you start naming kids after the characters!

And finally. A strip has got to be good when they write a song for you. Never done as a radio show (which explains the Little Orphan Annie song) and never really done as a theatrical animated series (i.e. the Popeye song) Barney nonetheless had a big big hit in 1923. That's 2 years before network radio began and 5 years before sound came to the movies.

Exhibit A:) Sheet music

Exhibit B:) a neat little YouTube video someone made to accompany the record. Take time to wait for the's great! I remember my Dad singing this.

Thanks Billy! For all your forgotten work. Someday we'll remember again and think we saw you for the first time!

See Y'all tomorrow!


Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Every now and then, the Barney Google character will make an appearance in the Snuffy Smith Sunday strip...but such cameos are few and far between.

Jeff Overturf said...

I remember being told that as a child the first time I asked who Barney Google (in the title) was. After that I think I read Snuffy Smith only to see if he showed up.

It was probably a decade before he did...maybe more...all adding to my curiosity.

Search This Blog